I Drank BCA Coolaid and Lived to Tell About it


Post by WildSnow.com blogger | October 12, 2015      
BCA's Steve Christie leading hands-on beacon practice.

BCA’s Steve Christie leading hands-on beacon practice.

Sometimes it’s fun being indoctrinated. At least that’s so when the subject is avalanche survival, and when the purveyor is an innovative company that’s been at the forefront of avy gear development for what, about a hundred years? (Truth, Backcountry Access came to the front of the industry with the first truly digital avalanche beacon, Tracker 1 they released 21 years ago in 1997. Yeah, that’s the BCA, whose first product was the Alpine Trekker (“Day Wrecker”) ski touring binding adapter. Check out our old Alpine Trekker Review for historical amusement.

The opportunity was too good to refuse. Spend a day with BCA and a small group of guides, retailers and writers. Location was up high in the Colorado mountains near Loveland Pass. No snow yet, but the vibe of coming winter was strong in the breeze.

I got some history on the Day Wrecker binding adapter. Bruce Edgerly of BCA told me that he and his founding partner, Bruce “Bruno” McGowan, were basically looking for something to go into business with. Bruno had been in Europe trying to use the Secura Fix touring adapter, which never worked well. He and Edge got their heads together and figured they’d make and market (literally) a better mouse trap. Thus BCA was born. After that, the two Bruces got together with electronics wizards and created the world’s first digital avalanche transceiver. That was a big deal, as having a microprocessor in your transceiver enabled directional “flux line” searching that was fast and easy compared to the voodoo we’d been dealing with for decades prior.

And guess what? A few days ago BCA sold their last Alpine Trekker. Which begs the question, who bought it? Drop by and leave a comment, but don’t expect me to go easy on you.

So, a few highlights from our morning of learning the way of B-C-A. Straight away, we all wanted to know if the 2013 sale of their company to Jarden (K2 etc.) has made much difference in the day-to-day. Bruce Edgerly and Steve Christie assured us the main effect was they didn’t have to worry about the bank owning their houses. I asked if that was because K2 owned their homes now. They laughed, but also mentioned that they’d been staring at spreadsheets way more than they used to. Such is life in the corporate, I guess. In my business, my wife stares at the spreadsheets. Then says something like: “Honey, %^&**$$$#*(&*()*()__)^$%^&*/.” I usually stare at ski bindings.

Next up, radio frequency interference. It’s safe to say that probably the majority of people using radio transceivers, including avalanche beacons and cell phones, have little to no idea how they work. Fine, do you have to know how the lithium atoms in your Prius function? On the other hand, any avalanche beacon user should memorize a few simple facts that apply to ALL avalanche transceiver (not just BCA):

1.) Just as the power of your cell phone signals are regulated by the FCC and sometimes too weak, so too your beacon signals can be meager. Result is if other similar radio waves exist near your beacon, and they’re fairly strong compared to your beacon “beeps,” your electronic search can get messed up. This is known as “RFI,” Radio Frequency Interference.

2.) Things like electrically heated gloves and cell phones can indeed produce RFI that messes with your beacon search reception, IF the items are close to your searching beacon. Solution? First, do practice searches with your electric items turned on and close to your beacon. Switch devices on and off while searching, to ascertain problems. Ultimately, in a real life search simply switch any electronics off, or simply store at least arm’s length from your beacon. Helpful techniques: Get in the habit of beacon searching with your arm extended, holding the beacon out from your body. Store RFI emitting electronics in places where they’ll be as far as possible from your beacon if you’re searching.

According to BCA, informal protocol for distancing avalanche beacons from electronic devices: 20 cm spacing at all times, 50 cm during search — and yes, turn off easily accessed devices.

Operative concept: Any normal consumer electronic device farther than about an arm length from you beacon simply is not going to be a problem. Closer, problems are still quite rare.

3.) No avalanche beacon transceiver is immune to RFI — e.g., no beacon is immune to physics! As stated elsewhere but bears repeating, a stronger “beep” signal could be effective in mitigating problems with RFI, but the strength of avalanche beacon signals is regulated by law, so that solution is off the table.

4. NOW THE BIGGIE: If you’re buried, so long as electronic devices (or sheet metal such as Gu packs) are not pressed or otherwise piled against your TRANSMITTING beacon like the beef, cheese and sauerkraut in a ruben sando, you have nothing to worry about. If in doubt, simply put some of these objects near the transmitting beacon in a practice arena. You’ll rarely if ever find a problem. Where RFI challenges is when present NEAR THE SEARCHING BEACON. Why? See brief expo below.

DETAILS —

Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) problems are analogous to trying to converse in a noisy party. Guys, you’ve been there. Your shouting in that interesting girl’s ear is the beacon signal. The noise you’re shouting over is the RFI. It is no more technical than that. “Noise floor” is even the technical term. Searching beacon (the girl) has to be able to distinguish “beeps” (your shouting) from the party noise. If she can’t understand you, then you’ve got a challenge. So does a beacon.

(I’ll refrain from jokes about guys beeping at girls, but hey, there is always the comment thread — just be careful not to bring the noise floor up too high.)

Solutions: Shout louder, or get Maria away from the party where you and her can talk. Beep beep. Human yelling volume is limited by genetics (or poor taste). Beacon signal strength is limited by law. So escaping the noise is the solution. CORE CONCEPT here is that avalanche beacon RFI is a problem for the LISTENER, since transmitting beacon “volume” is limited. (Caveat: this concept is why you want fairly fresh batteries in your avy transceiver so it’ll always be transmitting at top strength.

All this begs the question, are there ways the talk/shouting can be limited? In other words, could some sort of frequency blocking or RFI reduce the power of the transmitting avalanche beacon? Perhaps by stacking your camera, phone, Gu packs and shovel blade all on top of your beacon while you’re buried in an avalanche? Worst case, could happen. But pack those items so they’ll stay a good 8 inches or more from your beacon — even during a tumble in a slide — and no way in creation will you end up blocking your signal to the point where you can’t be found.

So, enough of the seemingly endless OH MY GOD MY CELL PHONE IS GOING TO KILL ME avalanche beacon yammering.

Of more importance, what is the current BCA beacon design philosophy pertaining to search? For single victim searches reality has not been rent. As with any other digital beacon, acquire signal, follow the arrows, do a fine search when indicated, probe, dig like there is no tomorrow.

Multiple burial searching, however, continues to be the point of contention in the avalanche beacon industry. Well known international guide Joe Vallone was in attendance, and pointed out that in Europe they continue to get a large number of accidents with multiple burials — perhaps more than ever. With that in mind, he wondered out loud if BCA’s emphasis on simplicity over multiple burial bells-and-whistles might not change a bit — based on new statistics.

Joey got me thinking. Perhaps in Europe, where you might very likely run across seven people buried at once in an avalanche, you’d want a beacon with sophisticated yet easy to use multiple search functions. On the other hand, the fact remains that for the average skier in North America the likelihood of needing to search for more than one, or a pair of buried individuals is highly unlikely.

But wait, does any of that matter? Turns out that with the BCA Tracker 3’s awesome signal sensitivity and fast continuous processing, you can solve some pretty complex multiple burials with a simple modified “strip” search. To do so, you just narrow up your signal acquisition grid search pattern, then each time you key in on a strong signal you ignore everything else and follow the arrows. No buttons, no muss, no fuss. No need to practice using a screen full of voodoo icons (I’ll never forget that weird hourglass in one unit, of which I’ve forgotten the brand-model but well remember the frustration of paging through a tiny booklet looking for what-the-heck-does-that-mean? only to forget the whole process eight weeks later.)

Yes Virginia, BCA Tracker 3 has a few features to help with multiple burials. You can suppress your strongest signal for 60 seconds, or hold the suppression button down and “break squelch” to see every beacon around you in “big picture mode.” Whoopie! Thing is, as demonstrated by BCA and practiced by us willing Coolaid sippers, “button free” searching is viable — for one victim or many.

Whew, I ran on at the keyboard a bit there. I guess I’m excited, having been intimidated way too many times by confusing screen icons and beacon reps telling me I had to practice for hours so I could dig up 16 buried corpses at a time. Otherwise, I was not worthy.

Lastly, a core concept: Survivor accounts and practice sessions show where the real challenge is in beacon design. Can you guess? Durability? Signal strength? Audio feedback? Size? Battery life? Gender friendly colors? Built in cell phone? Anti gravity? Hand warmer feature?

None of the above.

The challenge is in dealing with “rogue signals” from survivors and rescue team members in the debris field. If you’re good, you can work with this using mark/mask features or the signal strength “no button” searching I allude to above. But get one person wandering around inside the search area with her beacon transmitting, and it gets very confusing very quickly for all but the beacon champions. Add several people wandering — the situation quickly becomes a joke.

While distracted by their focus on multiple burial features, as far as I know not one beacon maker has specifically dealt with the problem of rogues. Sure, if you can accost the rogue and be 100% certain about masking his signal (or smash his beacon to pieces with your ice axe), that’s a theoretical solution. But in any good sized avalanche rescue scenario with dazed victims and bystanders wandering around, that ain’t gonna happen. Honestly, I have no idea how electronics wizardry could be created to cope with rogue signals. I’d definitely include this in my wish-list for the next evolution of avalanche beacon tech, along with stronger signals.

So there you go. The future of beacon design is still ripe for improvement. They can get smaller, lighter. Rogue signals can become a non-issue. And gender specific colors could perhaps become the norm.

Shop for BCA products here.
here.

Comments

21 Responses to “I Drank BCA Coolaid and Lived to Tell About it”

  1. Alex Kerney October 12th, 2015 1:38 pm

    So I should cancel the order of ‘OH MY GOD MY CELL PHONE IS GOING TO KILL ME’ stickers then?

  2. Louis October 12th, 2015 1:41 pm

    Cold feet and boot warmers, I have them both and have not been able to find any discussion related specifically to possible interference and the likelihood my beacon won’t work properly should I become buried while my boot warmers are turned on. My take away from this fine article, unless someone suggests otherwise is, “Operative concept: Any normal consumer electronic device farther than about an arm length from you beacon simply is not going to be a problem. Closer, problems are still quite rare.” Could a boot land next to my chest and beacon should I get buried? Painfully yes, but I think I’ll take my chances and have reasonably warm feet allowing me to enjoy the backcountry.

  3. Lou Dawson 2 October 12th, 2015 1:48 pm

    LOL

  4. Lou Dawson 2 October 12th, 2015 1:53 pm

    Louis, DEVICES NEAR THE TRANSMITTING BEACON MAKE LITTLE TO ZERO DIFFERENCE — IT’S THE _RECEIVING – SEARCHING_ BEACON WHERE YOU CAN HAVE PROBLEM. The searching beacon is “listening.” If party noise it too loud it can’t distinguish the signal over the noise. Your boot warmers are not going to cause trouble. But you can test in 5 minutes. Turn a beacon on to transmit, set a boot beside it, then search for the beacon that’s paired with the boot.

  5. ZB October 12th, 2015 2:00 pm

    Could a searching beacon detect the presence of a moving transmitter by subtracting it’s own motion (via inertia) from the relative motion of each field it encounters as the searcher moves around? Throw up a little icon or something so the searcher *knows* there’s a rogue signal nearby. I’m probably overestimating the amount of information a beacon can infer from each signal..

  6. Lou Dawson 2 October 12th, 2015 2:09 pm

    ZB, I think you are on to something. Solving the “rogue” problem is going to involve identifying every signal and using AI to figure out if it’s from a buried victim or not. Truly, this is the future of avalanche beacons — not multiple burial BS. Lou

  7. Kristian October 12th, 2015 3:38 pm

    Studies have shown that GPS satellite signals penetrate snow and avalanched snow.

    http://plan.geomatics.ucalgary.ca/papers/Schleppe_InsideGNSS_Sep07.pdf

    The GPS position could be digitally encoded and transmitted as part of the signal.

    Regular transceivers would continue to work and newer GPS transceivers would immediately direct you to the correct location. Can you please ask about this with Industry, etc?

  8. Kristian October 12th, 2015 3:52 pm

    The engineering is fairly straight forward. An international standard is needed for encoding the GPS position. Could probably just re-cycle from the PLB standard.

    And a traditional beacon search and pole probing could still be done at the GPS reported location to verify/pinpoint where to excavate.

  9. Ryan October 12th, 2015 5:04 pm

    GPS and beacons have been tried in the past (Pieps Vector) a few issues come up. A GPS processor that would penetrate the snowpack with enough accuracy to actually pinpoint a victim closer than the standard 20ft is very pricey, looking at it with the standard markup on electronics would up the price of a beacon by nearly $300. A GPS chip also has considerable drain on battery power and needs significant shielding to not interfere with the ferrite antenna. It all seems good in theory but would you buy a beacon that is 7″ x 5″ x 2″ that weighs 600g and costs $700 that does not do much more than we already have?

    We could also have a beacon with a 200m range if we made the main antenna 18″ long…

  10. mike October 12th, 2015 6:48 pm

    Multiple burials happen and will continue to happen. Having used the T3 though, it is as functional as others for these situations. Some other beacons are maybe too complicated in the first place for many users. I’d guess that 85% of users don’t know how to use the more complicated multiple burial search functions on their beacon.

    Was there any discussion on auto-revert functions? This is something that I’ve seen a lot of user error on and it seems like it could be the cause of a lot of unneeded confusion in the field. #1 cause of your “Rogue” signals I would guess.

  11. Mick McL October 12th, 2015 7:08 pm

    Lou, I check your homepage most days. It has been “stuck” on Sept 17 since then. I just realized, new blog posts are not appearing. I thought you had gone back in time to the good old days but then I saw a new post. Is it your site or me?
    Love your work.
    Mick

  12. Lou Dawson 2 October 12th, 2015 7:19 pm

    Hi Mick, way back then I was playing around with my cache settings, settings on our server that your browser sees and uses. Powerful stuff. Should be fixed now. If ever in doubt just click on your browser refresh button and combine with an extended URL such as

    http://www.wildsnow.com?foo=true

    The two things above should break the caching. Apologies for confusion I caused. Now you’ve got some reading to do to catch up!

    What causes the trouble is I never have any problems here on any of our computers! So the caching problem happens to folks and I have no way of knowing it’s going on until someone chimes in. Luckily it seems to happen to very few people, for what reason I have no idea. Something to do with how folks use their web browsers.

    ‘best, Lou

  13. Kristian October 12th, 2015 8:50 pm

    Web browsers cache viewed (loaded) pages to save time on having to re-fetch them. Content providers can guard against stale pages from hanging around end user browsers by including html tags instructing the browser to not cache the page and also that the page’s life is immediately expired.

    And about GPS and Avalanche Transceivers: Pieps Vector was a first trial.

    Look at how amazing cell phones are. A successful Android or Linux based GPS Avalanche Transceiver will certainly be done. Hopefully sooner.

  14. ptor October 12th, 2015 11:38 pm

    VERY IMPORTANT to know that Go-Pros and other video devices are just as bad for messing with transceiver signals! Remember the 50cm separation rule between your transceiver and other devices.
    Oh and I still have a pair of Alpine Trekkers…just in case…uh,uh…well, just in case.

  15. Mark Worley October 13th, 2015 7:36 am

    And who could argue with the bizarre, laughably intriguing alien sounds emitted when starting up the Tracker 3? Somewhat smaller and lighter than the Tracker 2, I like that things are truly downsizing. Let’s hope that continues.

  16. matt October 13th, 2015 10:50 am

    When a beacon is switched into search mode it should emit a radio signal which when recieved by other beacons not in search mode causes then to emit a rediculous shrill angry sound that anyone not buried would immediately seek to silence by flipping their beacons into search mode as well.

    Bonus: the clangor may be an easier way to find victims than following radio pings.

    Maybe there is a good reason that they don’t do something like this, but I can’t think of one.

  17. Lou Dawson 2 October 13th, 2015 10:55 am

    Matt, that is a simple answer, might work! Would need to be inculcated into the CE/ISO standard so it was common to all beacons. The other thing they need to do, which would solve the RFI (real and imaginary) problem, is up the transmit power level a bit. Result would be less battery life, but better range as well as the beacon could “talk” over the noise.

    You can bet the beacon makers have cobbled up test rigs with more power to see what happens. Would love to be a fly on the wall for that one.

    Lou

  18. Edge October 13th, 2015 4:00 pm

    Mike, your comment is right on about transceiver auto-revert functions. While this function is valuable to protect searchers that could potentially get buried, they can be extremely disruptive to rescue exercises–and actual rescues. To minimize the possibility of rogue signals, BCA forces the user to activate the auto-revert function each time you turn on the transceiver (no matter what the model). If you know enough to do this, then you’ll know what’s happening when the auto-revert warning alarm comes on. If you don’t have to activate auto-revert yourself, then chances are you won’t know what’s happening when you revert back to transmit.

    One important new feature on the T3 is our motion-sensing auto-revert with “five-minute hard return.” Once you activate auto-revert (by pressing the Options button when you turn the unit on), the T3 can detect whether you’re moving or not. If you’re in search mode for more than 30 seconds without moving, then it sounds an alarm and then reverts to transmit after a total of 60 seconds. But what if you’re fighting for an air pocket after you get buried? The T3 will still revert to transmit after five minutes, whether you’re moving or not. So it might be intentionally difficult to get into auto-revert mode, but once it’s activated, you’re covered!

    We just wrapped up another BCA “Cool-Aid” clinic in Bozeman and sure enough, the biggest issue–as always–was rogue signals. To minimize this, we made sure that none of the participants activated auto-revert. But even without auto-revert in the picture, rogue signals are a big issue. In Canada, they’ve even added “site control” to their new companion rescue curriculum to address this issue–mainly because snowmobilers can often show up on scene from miles away to help with a search. It’s great to have all this manpower, but it definitely needs to be “managed.”

  19. Lou Dawson 2 October 13th, 2015 4:51 pm

    Thanks Edge! I was just about to get in touch and clarify how the Tracker auto revert worked…. Tasty Coolaid. Lou

  20. James October 13th, 2015 8:05 pm

    How about heart rate monitors that are transmitting via bluetooth to watches? What level of interference can we expect from these close to the body bluetooth signals that may be in very close proximity to a beacon in a chest pocket or chest harness.

  21. Nick October 13th, 2015 9:00 pm

    When smartphones and/or GPSs have a battery life that is measured in weeks instead of HOURS it will be time to think about basing a life critical device like an avalanche transceiver on them. I suppose some people might remember to charge or change batteries EVERY time they take them off, but if you don’t…

    GPS has improved from the days when it was just about impossible to get a fix in dense forest, but I still wouldn’t want my life to depend on it getting a fix through 2 m of snow, a body, a backpack and a couple of skis and poles (and possibly a tree canopy covered with snow too).

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